Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor at Bright Hope Baptist Church
President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage is not only historic, but also demonstrates his commitment to ensuring that all Americans are treated equally under the law. All American citizens, including people like me who maintain the traditional, biblical view that marriage is “between a man and a woman,” should respect the president for taking such a courageous stance on such a very sensitive and political issue.
Of course, the president is not a pastor. He is a political leader. He is president of the heterosexual and homosexual, the rich and poor, black and white, Christian and non-Christian. He has to make decisions that he believes are in the best interests of all Americans, so as to maintain every citizen’s constitutional rights.
Given these parameters, his position on gay marriage should come as no surprise. The debate on same-sex marriage or civil unions is not new to America, its presidents, or religious institutions. To date, same-sex marriage has been approved in six states (Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut), as well as in the District of Columbia. It will be legal in Washington state in June and in Maryland in January. Thirty-one states (including Pennsylvania) have banned same-sex marriage.
The reality is that this is still very much a state issue. There is no federal legislation supporting same-sex marriage, and the president’s position does not make it law.
Moreover, the issue at the crux of this debate is too often overlooked: How can we maintain the separation of church and state while giving individuals free will to be in committed, monogamous, legal relationships that are heterosexual or homosexual? That’s the real dilemma we, as Americans, must resolve.
As an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am called to love all people regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, class, or pedigree. Anyone who comes to Bright Hope Baptist Church will concur that I make every effort to make each worshipper feel welcomed in God’s house. I do not judge, lest I be judged. I do not condemn, lest I be condemned.
However, as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.” I cannot and will not abdicate this responsibility.
As a pastor, it is my obligation to exhort the teachings of the Bible, including the biblical principal that defines marriage as being “between a man and a woman.” And while I have never made a big issue of homosexuality in the church, everyone who attends Bright Hope knows where I stand, and that I firmly maintain and uphold the biblical definition of marriage as between a man and woman.
Given my beliefs and the president’s, one may ask: Can a biblically based pastor support the president’s recent decision while also maintaining one’s religious belief? My answer is, yes. People of faith can believe in the Constitution of the United States of America and still maintain their religious convictions and beliefs.
Certainly, the religious right would have us believe that this is not possible — that people of faith have to choose between their faith and what is constitutionally right. I beg to differ. I believe one can be governed by and maintain one’s religious beliefs while also living in a democratically governed and pluralistic society.
Indeed, that is what makes America so great, that we can live in harmony with others, even if we do not agree with their politics, faith, beliefs, or decisions. If a group wants to legislate faith in America, then maybe its members should consider moving to a religiously governed society. However, if they choose to live in America, then they must understand the tenets of democracy and how it allows for individuals to coexist even when they have major differences in beliefs.
If the president’s position on same-sex marriage affirms the separation of church and state, and allows for religious leaders to not be criminalized or prosecuted because they hold firmly to their religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and woman, and therefore are not forced to perform such ceremonies in their religious organizations, then I can support him. I support him not because he and I agree on this issue — we do not and never will — but because I support his efforts to advance human and civil rights to all, which is his obligation as the leader of the United States.
Anyone who understands the importance of the separation of church and state in American history will have to agree that one can support civil laws for same-sex unions as long as they do not infringe upon the rights and freedoms of religious institutions. Both can coexist, just as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and others coexist and practice their beliefs in America. We are Americans in a pluralistic, democratically governed society. We must find a way to respect one another’s individual beliefs, even if we do not agree with them. We have done so in the past and can do so in the future.
E-mail Kevin R. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.